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2 YEARS

TV Ratings Lawsuit Devolves Into Fight Over Lawyer's Strip Club Habits

As ad giant WPP defends billions-dollar claims over alleged manipulation of ratings, CEO Martin Sorrell attempts to teach the plaintiff's lawyers a thing or two about bad publicity.

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What started out as a billion-dollar lawsuit alleging corruption and manipulation in the TV ratings business has evolved into a humorous side battle where lawyers for India's largest news network are claiming defamation on the part of the chief executive of one of the world's largest advertising and publicity firms. And now strip clubs have been dragged into the squabble.

In late July, New Delhi Television Limited sued Nielsen Co., WPP and others for operating an Indian-based joint venture that allegedly allowed favorable treatment to channels willing to provide bribes

PHOTOS: Top 10 Legal Disclaimers in Hollywood

Then in late August, a reporter for LiveMint.com, an affiliate of The Wall Street Journal, followed up on the litigation with an interview with WPP CEO Martin Sorrell, who blasted the suit and the lawyers who filed it. Sorrell said the suit was "hypothetical" because it hadn't been served properly by the "two-lawyer firm...based in Florida...[which] specializes in restaurant law...working on a contingency basis."

The advertising honcho also said NDTV's attorneys, Adam Finkel and Rohit Sabharwal, had approached his company to "discuss a settlement," which he characterized as a way "to extort money from us."

Sorrell refuted the suggestion that his company hasn't acted more aggressively upon word of corruption in the TV research business and waived off concerns about conflicts in his industry, but acknowledged that the reputation of WPP had taken a hit. "That is why we are are considering a defamation suit," he said.

Instead, Finkel and Sabharwai went to New York state court first and filed their own defamation lawsuit against Sorrell. And now Sorrell has responded with a blistering attack on the lawyers with mentions of strip club predilections. If these lawyers' reputations have been harmed, says Sorrell, the attorneys themselves shoulder the blame.

In the defamation complaint, Finkel and Sabharwai say they are not based in Florida, not involved in restaurant law, have never spoken to Sorrell personally, and that he hasn't accurately described the fee arrangement the lawyers have with their clients.

NDTV's original billion-dollar suit has generated huge interest in India, the world's second most populous nation. Perhaps it's not a surprise then that according to Finkel and Sabharwai, the purported defamatory statements from Sorrell's interview "have gone viral, with tens of thousands of derogatory Tweets and other Internet communications about the Plaintiffs."

STORY: Kantar Media, WPP Attempt to Escape Billion Dollar Lawsuit Over Manipulated TV Ratings

The full interview appears to have been taken off-line by LiveMint but survives as a cut-and-paste on other sites. The lawyers claim "grievous injury" and seek compensatory and punitive damages.

But Sorrell, through his own attorney Jennifer Klausner at Davis & Gilbert, filed a huge response on Tuesday.

In setting up a motion to dismiss, Sorrell teaches Finkel and Sabharwai a thing or two about the publicity industry.

"First, it is ironic that these allegedly seasoned litigators filed this defamation action, which they knew would generate its own publicity here, re-publicizing in New York the statements at issue that were previously published to an audience predominantly, if not exclusively, in India. Thus, to the extent these Plaintiffs have any complaint about any alleged damage to their reputation in New York (which Sorrell vigorously disputes), they have no one to blame but themselves. They have gone public in state court here repeating the very statements that they claim they wish never heard them -- potential judges, juries, attorneys and clients in New York. It is obvious that Plaintiffs would never have filed this action if they actually thought the statements were defamatory or damaging to them."

Sorrell then says the tactic of bringing a new lawsuit will "backfire" and it is merely to gain leverage in the NDTV case.

"How could the statement about the broaching of a settlement be defamatory when over 95% of cases settle...and most attorneys do, in fact, want to settle cases?" the defendant asks.

The motion to dismiss goes into much discussion about why the statements at issue are not defamatory, but it also goes well beyond the norm in how defendants typically fight such a claim. That's because of the inclusion of some additional personal info about one of the plaintiff-lawyers that will no doubt itself cause some reputational harm. To wit...

"The ultimate irony here is that Mr. Sabharwal has a lot more to be worried about than the statements at issue in this action. A simple Google search of 'Rohit Sabharwal lawyer' turns up reports and blogs, which link to a USA Today article, about Attorney Rohit Sabharwal's public confession a few years ago to a USA Today reporter that he is a strip club regular and that he believes it is perfectly acceptable for lawyers to take clients to strip clubs and that it is not a problem for men to do this because he doesn't believe 'women have a problem succeeding in law firms.'"

Last and not least, Sorrell disputes the notion that these are experienced litigators, saying that such individuals "would not be so thin-skinned to run to court each time a litigant in their cases makes public comments about the case."

STORY: Nielsen Sued for Billions Over Allegedly Manipulated TV Ratings

As the recent $40 million verdict in the Joe Francis defamation case showed, information does travel far and wide in the Internet age and damaging statements can add up to big monetary penalties. On the other hand, there are some dangers in being too overly sensitive. Lawsuits get reported too.

Sorrell's full motion to dismiss is on the next page.

E-mail: eriq.gardner@thr.com; Twitter: @eriqgardner